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Stats Study: Arkansas vs. Ole Miss

Expect a shootout when the Rebels visit Fayetteville

NCAA Football: Florida at Mississippi Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

Another week, another winnable game. The Hogs return to Fayetteville for the first time since Week 1 to take on Ole Miss.

I don’t much care for Lane Kiffin, but I’ll give him this: he’s FUN. According to our advanced stats, Ole Miss has the nation’s best offense and the nation’s worst defense. You don’t need advanced stats to see that. Ole Miss is presently on pace to surpass 2018 UConn as the worst defense in FBS history in terms of points per game (Ole Miss allows 51.7) and yards per game (641.3).

It’s difficult to describe exactly what Alabama did to Ole Miss’s defense on Saturday, but here’s an attempt:

  • Alabama became the first team to pass for 400 yards and rush for 300 against a Power 5 opponent since Oklahoma did it to Texas Tech in 2016.
  • Based on the starting field position of every drive, Alabama could have gained a maximum of 764 yards of offense. They gained 723.
  • Alabama snapped the ball on 43 first down plays. On those, the Tide were more likely to score a touchdown or get another first down (22) than they were to do anything that would lead to second down (21). Only six of those 43 first downs ever reached third down.

As you can imagine, Ole Miss’s defense is now dead last in the FBS is several of our advanced stats. We’ll dive into those below.

Meet the Rebels

(NOTE: Confused by any of these stats? Check out the advanced stats glossary.)

Remember that all rankings are out of 76 teams that have played at least one FBS game.

Despite all those horrifying numbers above, Ole Miss isn’t dead-last in Defense PAN, as the advanced stats recognized that they’ve played two top-10 offenses (Alabama and Florida). LSU actually ranks lower (74th) because its embarrassing performances against both Mississippi State and Missouri were much more extreme outliers. Temple (76th) is the worst, though that will likely change next week as the Owls are working off a sample size of just one game.

The EV+ model prediction is Arkansas 36, Ole Miss 36. The model thinks the Hogs will win by 4-5 points if they don’t do stupid things on special teams.

Scouting report

Strengths

  • Excellent offensive scheme that forces defenders to cover the entire field
  • Good quarterback and skill position players
  • Aggressive defense could cause problems for struggling offensive lines

Weaknesses

  • Run defense is basically non-existent
  • Pass defense struggles to interfere with patient passers
  • Only offensive weakness is a subpar offensive line

When Ole Miss has the ball

Saturday’s game matches up two brothers-in-law: Ole Miss OC Jeff Lebby and Arkansas OC Kendal Briles, who were both at Baylor at the same time. Due to Kiffin’s work with Briles at Florida Atlantic in 2017, the Arkansas and Ole Miss offenses have a ton in common.

Ole Miss is good at everything. The Rebels are explosive on standard downs and efficient on passing downs… which is exactly what all available analytics says you should try to be. Kiffin remains on the cutting edge of college spread offenses, constantly adapting and adding new concepts.

The Lane Kiffin offense

Hog fans have now had a chance to see two great offensive innovators this season – Mike Leach and Gus Malzahn – and now the Hogs will face a guy who’s not exactly an innovator, but rather the best adopter of innovative ideas out there.

If you think that Kiffin’s offense is pass-heavy, you’re quite wrong. On Saturday, the Rebels attempted just 28 passes (Arkansas has thrown it that many or more times in every game this season) and ran the ball 57 times for 286 yards against Alabama. That’s a 68% run rate, higher than in any of Bret Bielema’s five seasons at Arkansas. Got the point?

Kiffin’s offense is basically this: strategically, it’s the old Art Briles offense, tactically, it includes heavy West Coast influences from Kiffin’s younger days.

Kiffin is the son of Monte Kiffin – Arkansas’ defensive coordinator in 1977 – who was most famous for his time as the Buccaneers’ defensive coordinator under Jon Gruden. Lane got his coaching break as an offensive assistant at USC during the Pete Carroll days. USC’s offensive coordinator at the time was a man named Norm Chow, who himself was a disciple of the legendary LaVell Edwards, who led BYU to the 1984 national title.

Edwards is really the father of two different offensive schemes: Hal Mumme and Mike Leach studied Edwards’ pass concepts when creating the Air Raid offense in the 1990s, while the offense was also adapted into the West Coast concepts run by Chow and Kiffin at USC in the mid-2000s.

For example, here’s the Y-Cross concept from Edwards’ 1985 BYU playbook:

Okay, now here it is in Mumme and Leach’s 1997 Kentucky playbook:

Finally, here it is humiliating some poor Alabama safety on Saturday:

After Chow left for the NFL, Kiffin coordinated USC’s 2005 and 2006 offenses, including the 70-17 and 50-14 beatdowns of Arkansas during that time. Yep, that was Lane Kiffin.

By the end of the 2006 season, Kiffin’s genius was becoming noticed. He was praised for his ability to take a solid scheme (the West Coast offense), make some tweaks to play design, and then call good plays in-game. His playcalling prowess largely centered on his ability to anticipate how defenses would react to what he was trying to do. In this sense, most plays his offense ran acted as a setup for some future play that would take advantage of defenders who over-corrected.

Red Cup Rebellion found a great example of this in the 2005 USC-Arkansas game (sorry for those of you who memory-holed it). On USC’s second drive, Kiffin motioned Reggie Bush to the outside and sent him on a deep route. The Hogs walked a linebacker out to cover Bush, which obviously didn’t work. Bush burned the linebacker for an easy touchdown, which was called back for a holding penalty. But the setup was there. On the next drive, Kiffin did the same thing, motioning Bush out wide. This time, the Hogs had cornerback Chris Houston covering Bush… leaving Steve Smith without a cornerback on him:

The long pass to Bush served two purposes: it took advantage of an immediate matchup (Bush on a linebacker), and it set up a future play when the Hogs over-corrected. That’s a lot of what Kiffin is doing. That Y-Cross touchdown in the gif above was set up by Ole Miss running a bubble screen to the left that pulled the deep safety down to help. On that play, they faked the bubble, which drew in the safety, and then threw it past him for a long touchdown.

In 2007, he was hired to coach the Oakland Raiders, a massive step for a guy who had been a coordinator for only two seasons at the college level. Things… didn’t go great. Kiffin demonstrated that he wasn’t ready to run an NFL team, and his teams were unable to gain a significant strategic advantage on offense, though having Jamarcus Russell as the quarterback probably didn’t help. He was fired after a season and a half. After an uninspiring year as Tennessee’s head coach in 2009, he returned to USC, this time as head coach.

Kiffin’s time as USC head coach didn’t go great either. He went 28-15 (17-12 in Pac-12 play), which is far below where Carroll had the program. His offenses were pretty good but not elite, while his defenses were very bad (that’s been a theme for Kiffin as head coach). After being dismissed by USC, he became Nick Saban’s offensive coordinator at Alabama for three eventful years (2014-2016), where he’s credited with modernizing Alabama’s offense. During this time he continued to break away from his pure pro-style roots and move into a more modern spread attack that still used mostly West Coast concepts as a base. He was quick to adapt to what other offenses were doing and used his playcalling abilities to mess with opposing defenses, even becoming famous for throwing his arms up in celebration before the ball was even thrown .

In 2017, Kiffin was hired as FAU’s head coach, and this is where Kendal Briles enters the story, and we begin to learn about what both Ole Miss and Arkansas are doing. Kiffin had been impressed by Baylor’s offense and presumably came to the conclusion that at rapid tempos, his “progressive playcalling” (each play setting up another) would work even better.

Briles actually called plays at FAU in 2017, but both men learned from each other. Briles taught Kiffin more about Baylor’s philosophy and helped Kiffin slim down his own playbook (West Coast playbooks are famously massive) so it can be executed at warp speed. Kiffin taught Briles about using plays to set up other plays. At FAU, the pair designed a simple scheme built around a small number of “base” concepts, but these base concepts all had follow-ups that were slightly different and anticipated over-correction by the defense. If the base play worked, Briles could call the follow-up, sometimes on the next play, sometimes on the next drive, or sometimes way after that.

One thing that both Briles and Kiffin now share in common is the idea that a deadly passing game can be used to set up the inside run game. At FAU, the run game was heavy on simple inside zone runs:

Devin Singletary rushed for 1,900 yards and 32 touchdowns in 2017 as the explosive pass game forced defenders out of the box. The objective is pretty straightforward: push the safeties back with explosive pass plays (FAU was 3rd in Passing Marginal Explosiveness in 2017), push the slot defenders away from the middle with alignment (slot receivers often line up outside the hashmarks), and then run the ball. Briles prefers huge offensive linemen to dominate the line of scrimmage when there’s numbers in the box (now you see why Sam Pittman was intrigued?). The opposing defense basically has to cede an efficient run game in order to not get destroyed through the air.

Briles and Kiffin parted ways after just one season, and Kiffin continued to develop his offense, though both Briles and Kiffin continue to have the same basic objectives, which you’ll see in action Saturday:

  • Use progressive playcalls to anticipate defensive changes and force conflict in the secondary
  • Use alignment and an explosive passing game to push defenders out of the box
  • When the numbers are there, run the ball down the defense’s throat
  • Do it all at warp speed to limit the defense’s ability to think about what the offense is doing

Kiffin has made some changes to his passing game since Briles left, and that will be a big difference on Saturday. One big thing is that Ole Miss is going to attack the middle of the field like crazy. On throws in the middle of the field (between the hashmarks, 0 to 20 yards deep), Ole Miss passers are 20 of 24 for 383 yards and three touchdowns this season. In fact, the Rebels will attack all over. Here’s the Ole Miss passing chart this season, courtesy of SEC Stat Cat:

Not easy to defend at all. No team attacks the entire field as well as Ole Miss does.

Ole Miss’s offensive line issues are the only weakness. They’ve had some trouble with bad snaps, and they also aren’t great at protecting. Matt Corral is quite mobile and a major scramble threat and he still gets sacked a lot. The only surefire way to stop an Ole Miss play is to pressure the quarterback.

Elijah Moore is the main guy in the passing game. Kiffin will try to force-feed his top receiver targets and use tight end Kenny Yeboah for the home run hitters. Jonathan Mingo and the two backs out of the backfield will get some targets (Kiffin likes checkdowns but hasn’t had to much this year) but it’s really just Moore and Yeboah that are killing defenses this year.

As the Rebels force the secondary out of the box, it’s time to run the football.

The run game is also coming along nicely. It’s not quite as efficient as Kiffin wants it to be due to a subpar offensive line, but it’s been hitting home runs, which is really a bonus in this offense.

Arkansas’ run game got hammered against Auburn, so this will be a real challenge.

As you can see, Jerrion Ealy is the more efficient power back, while Snoop Conner is the big play back. They have a nice “thunder and lightning” combo going. Corral’s rushing numbers make him a dangerous runner, both on scrambles and called runs, which are rarer.

When Arkansas has the ball

Ole Miss defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin is in a tough position. He inherited a really bad defense, so he’ll need to recruit his way out of it. The problem is that Ole Miss fans and administration are all in on its exciting offense, so the program isn’t exactly an attractive target for top defensive recruits. Plus, Durkin himself is an issue. He was fired as head coach of Maryland after a player died during a conditioning drill on his watch in 2018 and a subsequent report identified a “toxic culture” around the program. That’s not going to help in recruiting.

Whether or not Ole Miss can overcome this and build a decent defense, they’re stuck with what they have in 2020, and it’s not been pretty so far.

The non-opponent-adjusted advanced stats are just brutal for Ole Miss’s defense. The Rebels are dead last in the FBS in EVA per play, success rate, standard downs EVA per play, standard downs success rate, marginal third down defense, and available yards allowed. A mediocre passing downs explosiveness defense is the only place Ole Miss isn’t in the bottom half of the nation.

Arkansas’ offense had a good game on standard downs for the first time this season against Auburn. A bad run game has hurt Arkansas’ standard downs offense this season, but the Hogs came out throwing on early downs and it worked well, especially targeting Trelon Smith out of the backfield.

Ole Miss ranks in the bottom 16 nationally in all seven major opponent-adjusted rush defense stats (and bottom 3 in almost every non-opponent-adjusted stat). The Hogs, however, may not be well-suited to take advantage as long as Rakeem Boyd is not healthy, though he is expected to play Saturday for the first time since the second drive against Mississippi State.

As we’ve discussed above, the end goal is to run the ball better. In 2015, Briles’ first season as Baylor offensive coordinator, the Bears were 4th in the FBS in rushing attempts per game (54.9) and 3rd in rushing yards per game (319.6), with only flexbone offenses ranking higher. The obvious goal is to use the spread passing game to back up the safeties, push out the slot defenders… and then run the ball between the tackles. But through three games, even when the Hog passing attack is working (22 of 30, 318 yards, 4 TD against Auburn), the Hogs aren’t running the ball well.

While Kiffin prefers a heavy dose of inside zone (that’s what he had Briles run at FAU and what he runs at Ole Miss now), Briles has gone back to a more complex run game since leaving FAU. The Hogs run inside zone, outside zone, and power/counter; Briles likes pulling with tackles on the power run, which is one of the reasons he likes such big offensive lines. Boyd was running a lot of inside zone, but since he’s gone out, the Hogs have switched to mostly outside zone with Smith, which thus far has had a lower success rate.

It’s not clear that Smith is the problem… in fact, it’s more likely that it’s the offensive line, which hasn’t produced an efficient run game in two seasons and three of the last four (the 2017 run game, Bielema’s last, was the only one since Alex Collins left with decent rushing efficiency numbers). We haven’t seen enough of Boyd against not-Georgia to decide whether or not he’d be a significant upgrade if healthy.

One of the reasons to get the run game on track is that while Ole Miss’s pass defense is still bad, it’s not embarrassing. In fact, its Pass Defense PAN ranking of 58th is higher than Auburn’s. Arkansas’ other two opponents are ranked 4th (Georgia) and 8th (Mississippi State) in Pass Defense PAN, so this game will be a big opportunity for Feleipe Franks to have a monster game.

Ole Miss’s raw sack rate is only ranked 59th in the country, but they’ve faced three good pass-blocking lines, hence the higher opponent-adjusted ranking. In theory, this is the biggest threat Ole Miss will provide to the Hog offense. The Hogs haven’t protected that great (58th raw, 47th opponent-adjusted sack rate), though a few sacks have been due to Franks holding onto the ball rather than make an ill-advised pass.

Keys to the Game

  • Get the run game going. Ole Miss’s run defense has been atrocious this season, and I don’t like the Hogs’ chances if the only way they can win is Feleipe Franks throwing for 450 yards. The Hogs don’t necessarily need a ton of big runs, but they need a high success rate and lots of forward movement on the ground. I like the Hogs’ chances if they are able to call 45+ run plays.
  • Get pressure. Unlike the Air Raid, where sitting back and waiting for the offense to make a mistake is the best bet, you have to pressure the Kiffin offense one way or another to disrupt its scheme. It’s always preferable to get pressure with the front four alone, but if that’s not happening, blitzing becomes necessary.
  • Win the big play battle. The Hogs have been solid this year at generating big plays in the pass game, but the other side of the ball has been interesting. The Hogs are among the best in the country and preventing big plays, but Ole Miss is among the best in the country at making them. The team that makes the most big plays probably wins.